Archive for the ‘North Korea’ Category

poplarI have one more thing to report on from the DMZ which happened in 1976. It was caused because a United Nations Command outpost close to the Bridge Of No Return had its line of sight to the next watch tower obscured by leaves which had grown from a poplar tree.

A five man american detail was dispatched to perform some trimming of the offending tree, but these military gardeners were met by forces of the DPRK. Things descended into violence quite quickly with the US captain being killed by a single karate chop to the neck, and the rest of the detail then being attacked with the very axes they had taken into the DMZ to prune the tree killing a young lieutenant also on the detail.

axe-murder-incidentThe US military was filming the whole incident from the outpost, although it is still unclear in the footage on how things got started, with both sides claiming self defence.

What is clear is that three days later a show of force that must go down as the largest topiary exercise in history was launched. Operation Paul Bunyan involved two dozen truck loads of men approaching the poplar tree, carrying more than eight hundred men all of whom were armed to the teeth and trained in Taekwondo. This force was backed up by attack helicopters, fighter planes, B-52 bombers and a US aircraft carrier, which meant that the tree was successfully cut down without response from the DPRK.


DSC01725Just behind London’s CCTV coverage I think this must be one of the most heavily monitored parts of the world. Alongside both edges of the DMZ there are watch towers every few hundred metres. At one particularly big observation tower I was lucky enough to be able to peer though some of the military grade binoculars there. It was such a clear day that in the distance I could even see a statue of Kim Jong-Il the former ruler of the North looking down on one of the towns.

As a consequence of all this monitoring on the border the north has made several attempts at advancing into South Korea underground. The idea being that supplies and personnel could be ferried forward as hostilities began or perhaps to actually start them!

3rd TunnelThese tunnels have been found by the South, although the North claims they were either coal mines (painting the walls black to make the story more convincing) or that they were built by the south.

When I am taken down one and along to the subterranean border I can see for myself what bunkum this is because all the marks from digging and preparing the explosives have clearly been created from the northern end. The mined space is not very high and certainly wasn’t built with me in mind, and when you reach the partition that has been installed by the South Koreans to stop anything from easily getting through you know that just the other side of it there will be a number of North Korean soldiers.


Each of which will be ill informed, heavily armed, most likely with AK47s, and probably wouldn’t be too pleased to be seeing this particular surfer.

The ‘Third Tunnel of Aggression’ that I visited is one of four that have been discovered with the most recent being in the nineties, but it is highly suspected that there are several more.


Minefield warningI am up first thing in the morning because I am being met by the guy who is going to take me into the Demilitarized Zone. I have been told I will need to take my passport with me so that we can get through the military check points.

The 4 kilometre wide stretch of land which keeps the North and South Koreans apart is one of the most heavily mined pieces of land on the planet so I am told not to wander off for my own good. Despite this a North Korean defector surprised everybody last year by knocking on the window of one of the South Korean watch towers, having walked and swam past all the surveillance and mines on both sides completely undetected.

WP_20131012_108Once inside the zone I couldn’t resist posing next to the sign you see here.

There is also the Kaesong Industrial Park, which is located ten kilometres into North Korea, with direct road and rail access to the south. The park allows South Korean companies to employ cheap labour that is educated, skilled and fluent in Korean, whilst providing North Korea with an important source of foreign currency. South Korean companies employ more than 50,000 workers whose wages totalling $100 million per annum are paid directly to the DPRK government, which is probably the real reason why the North allowed the complex to reopen again after the hostilities that followed a bout of muscle flexing from Kim Yong-Un earlier this year.

WP_20131012_072I will not be able to go that far North though so am left puzzling on life within the DMZ, where military vehicles park next to shrines, and on the South Korean side there is actually an amusement park. It is a strange place where there are even a few villages existing close to both sides of the ‘border’ in the middle of the zone.

On the south side Daeseongdong is populated by farmers who pay no tax because of where they live. Their crops are highly regarded though, being considered the most organic produce grown in Korea. This is because taking fertiliser, which is a key ingredient in home made explosives, into the zone could be construed as an act of aggression so everything has to be grown naturally.

WP_20131012_095Another surprising development of the DMZ is that it has unwittingly established one of the best nature sanctuaries in the world. Several endangered animal and plant species including red-crowned cranes, white-naped cranes, the extremely rare Korean tiger, Amur leopards and Asiatic black bears, now exist peacefully between the heavily fortified fences and listening posts, provided they don’t tread on one of the land mines of course!

There are manicured gardens in places too that are just starting to produce vivid autumn colours, and are beautiful to look at even if they are surrounded by razor-wire.

There are a number of bridges across the Imjin river which marks a stretch of the border. The most famous of these is the Bridge of no Return, which was were the James Bond film Die Another Day was set, although I suspect it was probably filmed elsewhere.

Dorasan Station Guard DutyIn less hostile times Unification Bridge was built providing a modern crossing across which the founder of the Hyundai conglomerate famously drove across hundreds of cows in 1998. Chung Ju-gung was originally from the area now controlled by North Korean, although it was under Japanese rule when he decided to move south, and he wanted to repay a debt of honour to his father who he had stolen a cow from to pay for his train ticket south to Seoul.

Another development from happier times is the Dorasan railway station constructed in preparation for the possible reunification. Apart from visitors to the Kaesong complex it is still largely unused but heavily guarded by the soldiers you see me alongside here. The eagle eyed amongst you will notice that the soldiers based on the border are taller than average, although still somewhat shorter than me. It is one of the three rules for being stationed here, with the others being that they are expert in at least one martial art, and that they are handsome in an effort to upstage their northern neighbours.

PanmunjomSadly recent hostilities prevent me from visiting the village of Panmunjeom which is located close by, but actually within North Korean territory.

It is the bizarre blue building village which you may have seen on the news where soldiers from the north and south eyeball each other all day long, and sometimes they do it nose to nose. 

Whilst everyone is a a bit jumpy I am told that my intended face pulling and name calling would most likely start a full scale nuclear assault so it is probably for the best anyway.

Gijeong-ri_FlagOne thing I do see is the North Korean flagpole stationed in their village in the DMZ, which has been nicknamed Propaganda Village due to the fact that nobody lives there even if men women and children are bused in daily to pretend that life is going on there as normal

The flag there is visible because it flies at the top of a 160m high flagpole, which was the winner in a bout of the one upmanship shenannigans which seem to be part of life here. Another entailed trying to bring bigger flags than the other to meetings, until they got so big they could not fit in the meeting rooms.

WP_20131013_006The South Koreans do appear to be a lot more comfortable with the situation than the North Koreans are (e.g. being willing to let people like me in) but the petty hostility still goes on. You will notice that the South Korean soldier of the two model border guard book ends I bought is a shade taller than the North Korean.

I have asked a few people here what they think about their neighbours, and if they would like to have the country unified in a similar vein to the success of modern Germany, but am told that they don’t want the taxation that everyone knows would be needed to get the north modernised.

It is a shame to hear that especially when you hear how many people are often starving on the other side of the fence.


northkoreaI found this online, which is the work of genius:

Surfin’ DPRK

If everybody had an ocean,

and a loaded AK.

Then everybody’d be surfin’

the North Korean way

With surfboards made of tree bark,

and no chance of a buffet.

Headin’ south to the border.

Surfin’ DPRK

You’d catch ‘em surfin’

north o’ Incheon

Just across the wire

and off the Guemgang Mountains

Dodgin’ friendly fire

down the dirty Yalu to the Korea Bay

Everybody’s gone surfin’

Surfin’ DPRK

We’ll all be planning that route

we’re gonna take real soon

We’re waxing down our surfboards

waitin’ for the dark of the moon

If the guards have no night vision

there’s no way we’re gonna stay

Heading off to join the lackeys

Surfin’ DPRK

Tired of being hungry,

All work and no play

Not so thrilled with the gulag

Hate the KPA

Don’t need re-education

Already know the way

Everybody’s gone surfin’

Surfin’ DPRK

Everybody’s gone surfin’

Surfin’ DPRK

Everybody’s gone surfin’

Surfin’ DPRK 



North-and-South-KoreaThe Korean War was primarily the result of an agreement of the victorious Allies at the end of World War II. The Korean Peninsula had been ruled by the Empire of Japan from 1910, and following it’s surrender in 1945 the peninsula was divided the along the 38th parallel, with USA forces occupying the southern half and Soviet military forces occupying the northern half.

The North established a communist government, while the South established a right-wing government and the 38th parallel increasingly became a political border between the two Korean states. Tension in the area intensified as cross-border skirmishes and raids persisted until North Korean forces invaded South Korea in 1950.

The-United-NationsThe USA and other countries passed a Security Council resolution in the United Nations authorizing military intervention in Korea, which was able to be passed because the Soviet Union was boycotting the council at the time.

The USA provided most of the soldiers which aided South Korean forces, with mixed results until the People’s Republic of China, keen to assert itself on the world stage, entered the war on the side of North Korea forcing the Southern-allied forces to retreat behind the 38th Parallel. The Soviet Union had no boots on the ground, but provided material aid to both the North Korean and Chinese armies.

Korean_dmz_mapThe fighting ended in 1953 when the armistice agreement was signed by all involved, apart from the South Koreans, which means the two countries are still technically at war today. However the agreement restored the border between the nations near the 38th Parallel and created the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). None of the countries involved are entirely fond of the others some sixty years later.

The DMZ is a 4km wide fortified buffer zone between the two Korean countries, which is a powder keg that always seems ready to go off, so it sounds like just the sort of place you should go to on holiday! I’ll send you a postcard.


South Korean flagAfter a surprising good night’s sleep in the car at a motorway services near Narita airport I am soon on my Japan Airlines flight to Seoul. There are surfable waves on the Korean peninsular but due to Japan sheltering most of the coastline they are are as a rule naff.

As a consequence I am visiting here more out of curiosity than anything else. So many consumer goods come from here (e.g. Samsung and LG) and the press from this country is usually negative due to the grumpy neighbours to the north, so I wanted to see for myself what it was like for a few days.

FirestarterI have been interested in the countries here since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, when it was my responsibility to escort the flag bearers back to their team mates after they had done a lap of the athletics stadium. (The flag always does a full lap out of respect, but the athletes rarely do for logistical reasons that I will bore you with another time.)

Rather amusingly in the dress rehearsal I had been allocated Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (The North), Republic of Korea (The South) with Syria thrown in just for good measure.

Sadly any opportunity for starting a diplomatic incident was lost when somebody queue jumped, leaving me instead escorting a one armed athlete from the Democratic Republic of Congo!

Unlucky 4Whilst researching this leg of my travels I have discovered  that the number 4 is extremely unlucky here. For this reason most buildings in Korea do not have a 4th floor.

Also I have aged a year during my plane flight because in Korea a baby is one year old at birth, instead of zero. This is complicated further because when the New Year passes, everyone in Korea automatically ages one year, even if they haven’t had their actual birthday yet. So if a baby is born on December 31 it would be one year old, and automatically turn two the following day!

north-korea-flagHowever the real story here is North Korea which is only 20km north of Seoul, or more worryingly just one day’s march should they decide to invade.

In the interest of world peace I have decided to travel up there tomorrow to see if I can have a chat with Kim Jong-Un about bagging a few waves north of the border. It is actually more exposed to the Pacific than the south, so you never know